As a sculptor, conceptual and video artist and agent provocateur, Gino de Dominicis’ prodigious personality appeared decidedly tame on the walls of P.S.1’s galleries, largely contained within discreet frames. That was the result not of any curator’s hand, but that of the artist himself, whose turn to painting in the 1980s – along with a longstanding aversion to documenting his other activities – somewhat skews the image of his oeuvre. Still, this exhibition over several rooms and two floors fleshed out that image in a variety of works spanning his short career, in this first major viewing of De Dominicis’ work in the USA.
The lion’s share of the works on view were images on paper or panel from the 1980s and early 1990s, and the majority of these carry the motif of a humanoid figure with a generous forehead tapering into an acquiline nose. They seem best articulated in pencil or charcoal, where the fastidiousness of the medium somehow evokes the preening precision of its subject. Some of these nameless characters figure in elliptically narrative works, such as Untitled (1984–6), in which a hulking figure skulks along the ramparts of some ancient city against a star-speckled night. Such a work (perhaps alluding to The Epic of Gilgamesh) betrays De Dominicis’ fixation with ancient Assyrian and Sumerian culture – often invoked by critics as a rarefied key to the artist’s preoccupations, but difficult to trace in the works themselves aside from a penchant for vaguely primitivist anatomies.
The strangely avian nature of De Dominicis’ figures, however, finds a notable (if coincidental) precedent in the artist’s early work, Tentativo di volo (Attempt at Flight, 1970). In this short video we see De Dominicis from behind, perched on a rural bluff, literally attempting to take flight. The artist appears undaunted by his repetitive failure. He simply remounts the hill and tries again, flapping his arms furiously before falling again. A voice-over comments: ‘For three years I have repeated this same exercise. I will probably never learn to fly, but if I have my son exercise this, and the sons of my sons, then maybe one of my descendents will discover how to fly.’ This trope of transformation recalls the Italian Futurists’ obsession with flight and the human body (Filippo Tommaso Marinetti even averred that ‘wings lie dormant in man’s flesh’). But if the Futurists sought to replace the Romantic and Symbolist longing for the cosmos with the mechanics of modernity, De Dominicis’ filmed performance, while not tongue-in-cheek, seems less than entirely earnest.
If a certain black humour lurks in a work like Tentativo di volo, it erupts unsubtly in D’IO (1971), an installation piece consisting solely of a recording of De Dominicis’ laugh. Set on a repeating loop, the throaty snicker is worthy of Vincent Price in its haunted house spookiness, verging on camp. The visitor is left wondering if he is, in fact, in on the joke, or else its eternally recurring butt. The piece’s title underscores such uneasiness with a simple but provocative pun, since D’IO plays on the Italian words for ‘God’ and [of/from] ‘I’, and thus also alludes to the artist’s creative powers. D’IO’s combination of a simple formal economy and complex existential themes finds an echo in the sculpture/object, Asta (Stake, 1967), a single pole of cartridge brass with a sharpened bottom, pinioned between floor and ceiling like a spindly column. The confrontation of the viewer with the piece – a kind of foil to the human body – entails seeing one’s likeness distorted into fun-house dimensions. The stake serves at once as an object in its own right, and an extension of the gallery’s space.
In the 1980s, De Dominicis abandoned sculpture, video and collage in favour of painting, which he deemed the most important of genres. Untitled (1984) depicts a single, slightly misshapen figure inside the spare outlines of a uniformly red room, evoking contemporaneous figurations by Enzo Cucchi or Mimmo Paladino. Lest we rush to consider this part of an unqualified swing back to figurative painting and expressionistic themes, many of De Dominicis’ works from the early 1990s engage again with post-painterly and post-minimalist practices, injecting sculpture or painting with decidedly conceptual problems. His Cosmic Calamity (1990, not in the show) and the 1998 mixed-media Nose exaggerate motifs of his drawings and paintings into objects impossible to pigeonhole, whether materially or conceptually.
De Dominicis frustrates the neat cleaving of Italian artists of the late 20th century into opposed camps, in line with either the painterly neo-expressionism of the Transavanguardia or the cerebral sophistication of Arte Povera. To that end, it is no surprise that his work figures prominently in Francesco Bonami’s recent ‘Italics’ exhibition (initially at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, and now at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art), which set out to challenge the prevalent hegemonies of contemporary Italian art. Nor should it come as any great shock that De Dominicis’ last works, like Untitled (Sandretto Collection) and Untitled (Il Totem) (1994), evoke the works of Francis Picabia – perhaps the most eminent example of an avant-gardist who negotiated the fraught terrain between painting and Conceptualism: indeed, used painting as a kind of Conceptualism in its own right. De Dominicis’ large-scale, mixed-media paintings on crystal and plywood from the 1990s – many of them including both tempera and gold paint – recall the diagrammatic iconography of Picabia’s 1915 works like Very Rare Painting on the Earth and Reverence.